The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the country and for good reason. It’s location in East Tennessee puts it within an eight hour drive of about three-fourths the U.S. population. It’s also one of the least expensive places to visit. The park has no user fees for daytime visitors. Overnight camping charges are very cheap and most trails remain open all winter. The only exception is the Newfoundland Gap area and U.S. 441, which runs from Gatlinburg, Tenn., to Cherokee, N.C. Bad weather does intermittently close this road.
Here are some great things to do in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the winter. Enjoy!
1. The 17th annual Wilderness Wildlife Week runs Jan. 13-21 and Music Road Hotel and Convention Center in Pigeon Forge serves as the base for this event, which has all types of workshops and lectures spread throughout Sevier County. This year, over 100 wildlife experts are planning to take part. Guided hikes and photography and art courses are always included. For a brochure on the event, call 1-800-WINTERFEST.
2. See nature in the winter. The park is beautiful in the winter, with everything taking on a different attitude than in the summer. First, few tourists visit the park during this time of the year. Usually, you can travel through the park without the bumper-to-bumper traffic of the spring, summer and fall. The park recommends Cades Cove and the Roaring Fork Motor Trail as excellent routes for those hoping to catch glimpses of wildlife. I agree. Both areas give you the chance to travel at your own pace. You’re close enough to see a variety of animals, but far enough away so that the animals appear and act as though in natural settings. You can find information on both of these by stopping at the Sugarlands Visitors Center close to the park’s entrance or visiting http://www.nps.gov/grsm.
3. Ober Gatlinburg. It may surprise those up north and out west, but Gatlinburg does serve as Tennessee’s ski Mecca during January, February and March. Ober Gatlinburg, the ski resort, opened early this year thanks to some December snows. It’s located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I think the resort has about 12 runs, a chairlift and several snow blowers. Okay…Aspen it’s not. You won’t find many celebrities in the lodge bar, but you will get many more runs down the slopes and you’ll find the travel expenses up to 50 percent less than the fancier resorts. You can find more at www.obergatlinburg.com.
4. Shopping, shopping and more shopping. Sevier County is becoming an attraction based solely on available shopping. Very few places offer you endless malls and the wilderness of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park within 30 minutes of each other. The area has four or five complete malls. My favorite is Tanger Five Oaks, which is located just before Pigeon Forge proper. Here, you will still find crowds in the winter, but parking spaces are easier to find than in the pre-Christmas rush. And bargains are great as stores try to clear out last year’s goods to make room for next year’s. Hours are cut, with some stores closing at 7 p.m. on weeknights.
5. Take advantage of off-season prices on cabins and luxury hotels. A few rustic ones are sometimes available inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but these are designed for fishing and often don’t have running water. The cabins located around the park are really amazing. They’re great for family reunions and are perfect for romantic weekends for two. You can get them with hot tubs and Jacuzzis and the views are amazing. Prices vary depending on the amenities and the location. For more information, goggle the city you want to stay in: Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Cosby. I highly recommend Townsend. It bills itself as the peaceful side of the Smokies, but you will have to drive farther if you’re going for the shopping. Here’s the site: http://www.smokymountains.org/